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Paul Dano and John Cusack paint an epic Beach Boy portrait in powerful 'Love & Mercy'
Paul Dano in Love & Mercy. - photo by Josh Terry
"Pet Sounds" is a beautiful and creative album, by far the most memorable and definitive work Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys ever produced. The album marked the groups transition from surf band into true artistry, and according to the new Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, it also marked the descent of the bands creative leader into years of illness and abuse at the hands of Dr. Eugene Landy.

Love & Mercy is a striking and moving film, a somber, two-toned love letter to Wilson and the album it shows him composing. If you are a Beach Boys fan, you have to see it. If you arent, you should probably see it anyway.

The film toggles between two storylines. In the first, a twenty-something Brian (played by Paul Dano) has stepped away from the bands relentless touring. Inspired by the Beatles "Rubber Soul" album, he is focused on taking his bands music to a new, more mature level.

The second story takes place decades in the future as a traumatized Wilson (now played by John Cusack) struggles under the oppressive hand of Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The common thread in the storylines is Wilsons chaotic mental state, painted as a kaleidoscope of stress, anxiety, substance abuse issues and mental illness. Danos depiction shows Wilsons breakdown, while Cusack tries to bring Wilson back through a budding relationship with an ex-model-turned-car-saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

The film may come as a shock to anyone whose familiarity with the Beach Boys tops out with images of surfboards and memories of California Girls. But some shocks are well worth having.

Love & Mercy may not spend a lot of time covering the happy times and sunny hits of the Beach Boys, but there is plenty of music at the heart of this film. Director Bill Polhad takes us through Wilsons creative process in developing songs like God Only Knows and Good Vibrations without allowing the documentary element to bog down the narrative.

Dano and Cusacks performances complement each other perfectly, nailing Wilsons tics and nuances with a great natural quality. An early monologue from Dano should strike familiar notes with anyone who has seen a Wilson interview, and Cusack carries a weariness that captures the ambiguity of the artists condition.

The two portraits of Wilson are enhanced by strong turns from the supporting cast. While the 1960s half of the film is shot from Wilsons perspective, we see the latter half from Melindas, and Banks performance is easy to sympathize with next to the creepiness and gurgling rage Giamatti gives Dr. Landy.

Love & Mercy is also a departure from previous musical biopics like Ray, Walk the Line and last years Get On Up. In all those cases, as well as this one, a legendary musician is showcased warts and all, celebrating triumphant talent while mourning the wreckage of family and friends strewn along the way. Wilsons first marriage also failed, but Love & Mercy seems to downplay that part of his history and tries to make him more of a universally sympathetic character.

Painting Wilson in such a light may compromise the objectivity of Love & Mercy, but the films strengths easily outweigh its few weaknesses.

Love & Mercy is rated PG-13 for drug content, profanity and some frightening moments.